[review] H is for Harlem by Dinah Johnson and April Harrison

#63 in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the alphabet.

If I had to choose one word to describe H is for Harlem, it would be “alive” – deliciously, soulfully, jubilantly alive. 

Generous in its carefully curated offerings and beautiful in its execution, this sumptuous abecedarian celebration of Harlem’s rich cultural history pulsates with energy, inviting readers to explore, discover, and marvel.

As author Dinah Johnson writes, “Harlem is a place like no other in the world . . . It is truly multicultural. But for a long time people have called Harlem the mecca of Black America, a place where African American culture is living and breathing, shining and indestructible.”

From “A is for Apollo Theater” to “Z is for Zora Neale Hurston,” we learn about Harlem’s unique treasures – seminal people, places, organizations, communities – making up the fascinating tapestry of this storied New York neighborhood. 

Johnson describes the well known (Harlem Globetrotters, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman) as well as the less familiar (Mabel Fairbanks, Impact Farm, Opportunity Magazine), with just enough facts to whet the appetite, encouraging further research.

Since I especially love music, I was happy to read about the iconic Apollo Theater, the Boys Choir of Harlem, and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. It was exciting seeing some of my faves mentioned: Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5, Jennifer Hudson, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Wynton Marsalis. Just imagine the convergence of such genius and talent, the creative cross-fertilization among all the arts that continues today!

Johnson also tucked in some new-to-me nuggets along the way. Are you familiar with Cicely Tyson’s role in inspiring the creation of the Dance Theatre of Harlem? Though I was familiar with Zora Neale Hurston’s novels, I didn’t know she was also an anthropologist, or that she is credited by some to have been the first African American to debut a Broadway play.

Wonderful, too, to read about the famous Liberation Bookstore and two landmark eateries, Sylvia’s and the Red Rooster. It’s uplifting to know that even after 60+ years, Sylvia’s is still a favorite gathering place for diverse groups of people not only to eat and listen to music, but also to talk about anything and everything. Imagine the ideas, opinions, and experiences shared, all instrumental in forging bonds and building community. Oh yes!

April Harrison’s beautifully textured and layered illustrations capture the heartbeat of Harlem’s irrepressible jump jazz jive essence and every nuance therein, expanding upon Johnson’s luminous text.

Whether single or double page spread, the vibrant colors, masterful use of scale and perspective, and interesting compositions make each page turn a sheer delight. The abundance of details ensures readers will notice something new with each look. 

Glorious portraits of notable figures from the past and present are collaged amongst landmark buildings, both set against lush abstract backgrounds. 

The dynamism of this slice of humankind is conveyed via varied skin tones, musculatures, facial expressions and postures. Emotions are palpable, resonance, far reaching. From the power and grace of dancers, to the distinguished deportment of Edgecombe Avenue intellectuals, to Malcolm X’s piercing eyes, Harrison’s evocative pictures draw the reader into every page, enabling him/her to feel the energy. Such proud and purposeful individuals, such vitality for life!

While it is difficult to pick a favorite spread, I must mention “M is for Studio Museum in Harlem.” 

At the Studio Museum in Harlem, you can see tens of thousands of photographs and paintings, sculptures and installations, and pieces of art you’ve never imagined. You’ll learn names like Bearden and Lawrence, Saar and Simpson, Walker and Woodruff. The museum is a dynamic, daring, busy, beautiful celebration of art by artists beloved in Harlem, in America, and in countries around the world.

I can’t resist museums and art galleries, and appreciated Harrison’s recreations of famous works of art. I like the two girls and woman staring up at Alison Saar’s sculpture (inspired by Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) – the questioning looks on their faces as they view a symbol of a sad and painful time. I found the composition of this spread so aesthetically pleasing, something you’d want to frame as its own enduring work of art.

I also love “N is for New York,” with its black Statue of Liberty. This makes a strong statement for the overall theme of this book, reminding us of how African American culture has informed our national identity and impacted the world. The blue abstract background is breathtakingly gorgeous!

Pleasingly informative and a joy to behold, H is for Harlem is a perfect marriage of text and art. One senses the open hearted spirit of its creators when introducing Harlem and all it embodies to young readers. 

When all is said and done, a final double page spread, another “H,” reads:

“H is for history. H is for a heart still beating strong. H is for Harlem, forever, whether you visit or call it home.” 

A love letter to all that came before, all that’s happening now, all that’s yet to come. Alive.

I’m now daydreaming about spending a perfect day in Harlem: Sunday brunch at Sylvia’s, visits to the National Jazz and Studio Museums, dinner at the Red Rooster, evening performance at the Apollo or Dance Theatre. I can already hear the voices, feel the rhythms. Swing and sway to the beat; step step jump at “The Home of Happy Feet.” See you Uptown!


written by Dinah Johnson
illustrated by April Harrison
published by Christy Ottaviano Books/Little, Brown and Company, July 2022
Alphabet Picture Book for ages 5-9, 48 pp.
*Junior Library Guild Selection*
**Starred Reviews** from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and The Horn Book

♥️ Enjoy this Book Chat with April explaining how she made the pictures for the book.

♥️ Check out this wonderful conversation with Dinah, April, and their editor and publisher Christy Ottaviano.

♥️ Here is the Harlem Quartet playing “Pan con Timba” with special guest Aldo Lopez- Gavilan on piano. Didn’t know about them till I read this book. LOVE!

Certified authentic alphabetica. Made with love, history, heart, home, and jazz hands.

*Interior spreads from H is for Harlem, text copyright © 2022 Dinah Johnson, illustrations © 2022 April Harrison, published by Christy Ottaviano Books. All rights reserved.

**Copyright © 2023 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “[review] H is for Harlem by Dinah Johnson and April Harrison

  1. Jama, thank you for sharing this beautiful, inspiring, and much needed book. The artwork and words moved me. I grew up loving and listening to Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Louis Armstrong, and Aretha Franklin. I also love listening to Jennifer Hudson. Did you watch the amazing job Jennifer H did in the movie Respect? Did you watch the recent Grammy awards and see Stevie Wonder sing, play the piano, and some other tiny organ like instrument. It was magical watching and listening to Stevie Wonder and country star Chris Stapleton playing and singing to together. I also remember reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin at a young age and I remember how it opened my eyes to the horrible prejudice in our country. Is the Liberation Bookstore the bookstore that someone wrote and illustrated a children’s book about? Thank you for the wonderful review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes to all your questions except the last one about the Liberation Bookstore picture book, which I don’t know. I loved JH in “Respect,” and enjoyed Stevie and Chris on the Grammys. Thanks for your thoughtful, heartfelt comment. So glad you enjoyed the review!


    1. Agree. The alphabet book format is a great way to impart all kinds of information, sometimes simple facts, and as with this book, more complicated ideas and details along with lots of facts. I learned a lot about Harlem by reading this one. It also opened my eyes about possibilities of alphabet books I hadn’t considered before.


  2. This book makes you feel like you are in Harlem! Please check out The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at www. Nypl.org . It is one of the finest research libraries at New York Public!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Schomburg Center was included in this book — “S is for Schomburg.” It was tough trying to pick which letters to feature in my review — so much to discuss and I was already running long. The Schomburg does sound amazing — the book mentions its phenomenal collection of photographs.


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